"Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business."
That above definition of Fifth Business (which I think Davies must have invented…I didn’t find any other reference to it when doing a google-search) comes at least half way through the book. But it works and if you think about it, there are plenty of literary figures who fit that bill; characters who act as catalysts and observers of the main event while not being main players themselves.
In this book, it refers to the protagonist, Dunstable (aka Dunston, aka Dunny) Ramsay who narrates the book in the form of a letter to his former boss, the headmaster of a private boy’s preparatory school in Canada. Ramsay has just retired from 40+ years teaching, and he is expressing his dissatisfaction with the reductive, anodyne farewell article in the school paper, written by a college who barely knew him.
It is a little difficult to write what this book is about because the narrative itself dodges and weaves. The reader fairly quickly forgets the epistolary setting, though Ramsay will remind the reader of the format from time to time. At first it feels like a cradle to grave autobiography as Ramsay recounts his upbringing by stolid, Scotch stock Canadians in a small village in the early part of the 20th century. But then there is an event that will change young Dunny’s life forever. While walking home at age 10, he ducks to avoid being hit by a snowball thrown by his friend/nemesis Percy Boyd (aka Boy) Staunton. The snowball instead hits young, pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the wife of the local Baptist minister, causing her to go into labor prematurely. That event and its repercussions will reverberate all through the book right up to the last line…but as I stated above, the narration dodges and weaves so when it does pop up for the final time, it is a bit of a gut punch.
I have to wonder if John Irving read Fifth Business and was in any way inspired to write A Prayer for Owen Meany with its stray baseball which has consequences further on in THAT novel. In fact, I was reminded more than one of Irving while reading Fifth Business, in particular in its themes of guilt/redemption and coincidence/destiny, and yet they could not be further apart in many other ways, not the least of which is length. Fifth Business came in at a concise 252 pages which is a fraction of Irving’s typical tome pages.
There is a lot to chew on here in terms of themes on faith, obligation, guilt, self-invention and self realization... Presbyterian Dunny has a religious experience during WWI that sets him off on a quest to research and write about the lives Catholic Saints. He also never forgets his debt to Mrs. Dempster or her premature child. Boy Staunton becomes filthy rich and politically powerful, a nice counterpoint to what Dunny is not or does not want to become, but is Dunny using Boy or is Boy using Dunny? And I haven’t even gotten the characters of Liesl and Magnus Eisengrim and how they will figure in Ramsey’s life.
I read Fifth Business for the Robertson Davies reading week August 25 to 31 hosted by Lory at the blog The Emerald City Book Review . This was my first experience of Robertson Davies’ works and it is probably his most famous. I feel like Davies is building towards something here, even though Fifth Business totally stands on its own. Therefore, I will very likely read the other two books in this trilogy: The Manticore and World of Wonders. But I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good read that might make you ponder about deeper subjects.